With a focus on wellness, Kotzebue schedules series of suicide prevention learning circles

PCCARES facilitators conduct a learning circle during training in Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of Tara Schmidt, PCCARES)

Suicide remains a sensitive topic across Alaska. Despite a variety of statewide and national resources available to help those with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, recent state reports show that suicide rates in Alaska are among the highest in the nation.

With a focus on community wellness and removing stigma for the controversial topic, an Alaska nonprofit is hosting a series of listening circles in Kotzebue aimed at younger community members.

When talking to young people about suicide prevention, Michelle Kubalack speaks from experience. 

“I was just hopeless,” Kubalack said. “I didn’t think that I could ever get to the point in my life where I would be doing something that I enjoy.”

Incidents involving sexual assault compounded by a history of alcoholism brought Kubalack to a low point where she considered ending her life. She’s been in recovery for over a decade. She credits her ability to stay sober and manage her depression, in part, to the support systems in Kotzebue who helped her. 

“There were people that really guided me and helped me and gave me a chance, and that meant a lot,” Kubalack said.

Stories like Kubalack’s are common across the state. 

Statistics from the State Department of Health and Social Services released last year show a 13 percent uptick in the number of suicides in the state from 2012 to 2017. Alaska Natives were almost twice as likely than every other ethnic group in the state to die from suicide. It was most prevalent in the Northern and Southwestern parts of the state, and a third of the cases involved someone with a substance abuse problem. 

Kubalack is a facilitator for Promoting Community Conversations About Research to End Suicide, or PCCARES. The Alaska group focuses on addressing suicide in Northern Alaska communities through community-focused listening circles. 

Kubalack says that a major catalyst for suicide is the idea that people don’t seek help, or don’t think that they can seek help for their personal struggles. 

But PCCARES listening groups are made of local community members. The groups, which can be as large as 20 people, provide safe spaces for people to discuss their own personal struggles as well as how suicide has affected them. 

“I want the youth to be comfortable in talking about a difficult subject to an adult or with each other,” Kubalack said. “So I think it would make a big difference if they could express how much suicide hurts or how it affected them.”

Kubalack says she and other PCCARES facilitators went through an intense training process in Anchorage last year to prepare for the listening sessions. She says that it’s very common for someone in the community to know someone who has been affected by suicide, and PCCARES relies on close-knit community bonds to facilitate healthy discussions. 

“They’re designing it in a way where the facilitator has knowledge and know the effects of their community,” Kubalack said.

Kubalack is hopeful that through the learning circles, community members will have the chance to discuss a heavy topic that affects many.

“It’s something that a lot of folks have dealt with silently,” Kubalack said. “And I think to begin healing, you need to learn how to open up and talk about the things that are hurting you, and I think that these learning circles will teach that.”

The first learning circle is scheduled for Jan. 29 in the Manillaq Behavioral Health Services kitchen in Kotzebue. Facilitators are aiming for a 6 p.m. start time. Kubalack understands that not everyone is comfortable with discussing their struggles in public forums. She says there are more private alternatives offered at Behavioral Health. 

“If you know of somebody, or if you have ever felt like you want to commit suicide,” Kubalack said, “There are certain ways that we can try to help the youth or yourself by talking to someone you’re comfortable with, or seeking help.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.